After her first-round win at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati last week, Venus Williams went back out that same night to hit more balls.
For most players, that would not be a big deal. But practicing extra is something Williams hasn't been able to do -- at least not nearly as often as she would like -- since announcing at last year's U.S. Open that she suffers from Sjogren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease that produces joint stiffness and prolonged fatigue. Williams then stepped away from competitive tennis for seven months, and, since returning this past March, she has suffered some of the worst singles defeats of her career, most notably her listless first-round exit at Wimbledon, where she has won five of her seven Grand Slam titles.
Yes, Williams won Wimbledon and Olympic gold doubles titles with her sister Serena. But, at age 32, Venus finds herself answering new questions, as tennis fans and pundits wonder whether we are watching one of the greatest players ever shrink before our eyes. After her straight-set Wimbledon defeat, there was talk that we might have seen her last singles match at the All England Club. And now, on the eve of the U.S. Open, which starts Monday in New York City, some are asking whether this could be her last hurrah there, too.
Not a chance.
"She has absolutely no plan of retiring anytime soon," said Mary Joe Fernandez, who coached the U.S. Olympic tennis team in London. "People believe when you turn 32 that you should be done, but Venus says, 'Why?' That was really refreshing for me to hear. I saw a different side of her in London, that she loves the game and doesn't want to stop playing. She was even talking about the next Olympics -- four years from now."
Fernandez asked Williams whether she would retire from singles and just play doubles. "She dismissed that idea out of hand," Fernandez said. "She is quite focused on playing singles."
Which brings us back to Cincinnati and that postmatch practice session. Maybe it really was no big deal, just a momentary energy surge. Or maybe it was a sign that Williams is writing the opening page to a new script: How to Win with Sjogren's.
"I'm doing a lot better than this time last year,'' Williams told reporters in Cincy, where she made it to the semifinals. "So much better than a couple of months ago, as well. I am learning to deal with everything a lot better."
Williams said that, in her first few tournaments after the seven-month layoff, she would panic if she woke up feeling stiff or tired. A loss was inevitable. Now, she's starting to figure out how to hang in there even on the bad days and still get a win. She has changed her diet (she's now a raw vegan -- as is Serena) and is letting her body dictate her activity instead of always pushing through.
Williams enters the 2012 U.S. Open ranked No. 47 in the world. But remember, these are the same hard courts upon which she burst onto the scene as an unseeded 17-year-old in 1997, with a serve more powerful than any the women's game had seen. She made it all the way to the Open final that year, eventually losing to world No. 1 Martina Hingis. Williams would go on to win the tournament in 2000 and 2001; she lost to Serena in the finals in 2002. Since then, the elder Williams has had up-and-down results at Flushing Meadows: a couple of semifinal appearances sprinkled amid early exits.
"I would have thought she'd win more U.S. Opens," said former top-10 player Pam Shriver, now an analyst for ESPN. "The speed of the surface suited her big game. I think most people, after the way she started her career, would have thought she'd win more there."
Few people are expecting much from Williams at this year's U.S. Open. Winning the event seems like a long shot, and most fans likely will be holding their breath when she plays, hoping she reveals some of her old game but also guarding against disappointment if she doesn't.
Williams herself takes a more clear-eyed view. "I'm excited about the Open,'' she said in Cincinnati. "I know I can play great tennis. I need some more matches, obviously, and I need to execute out there on the court, and I need to feel halfway decent. So there are a lot of things that have to fall in place for me, maybe more than for other players. But I'm up for the challenge.''
She is adjusting to her new reality, which is that some days are good and some are bad, and she must figure out how to play well through all of them. "You can't underestimate her," Fernandez said. "What she's been through -- she is strong. She really goes out there thinking she's going to win. This is the hard part for her now, being able to play at a high level all of the time. I think she's getting more familiar with her symptoms and not panicking when she's not playing well. That plays a big role."
Perhaps, as Fernandez suggests, Williams will discover a way to tailor her tennis to fit the parameters Sjogren's has set, becoming more of a finesse player. She dominated for years with an athletic, powerful game, steamrolling opponents with her superior endurance and reach. But now, those tactics tire her out too quickly, so she must conserve her energy.
"Sometimes, when you have an injury or illness, it can simplify things for you," Fernandez said. "It takes some time, but you begin figuring out new angles that can work for you."
And maybe instead of witnessing the on-court demise of a tennis great, we are watching the necessary trial-and-error approach as Williams modifies her game -- a change that will help her compete once again.
The answer has not been determined yet, but the U.S. Open will provide another clue.